Following massive outcry over the closure of ABS-CBN, the House of Representatives approved a five-month franchise for the country’s biggest network at unprecedented speed on Wednesday.

House Bill 6732, authored by House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano himself and six other lawmakers, was approved by the chamber as a “Committee of the Whole” before 5 p.m. and on second reading less than two hours later, at 6:23 p.m.

The bill grants ABS-CBN a temporary franchise that expires on Oct. 31, 2020. It will go on third reading in the House and will have to be deliberated upon by the Senate, before going to President Rodrigo Duterte’s desk for signature.

Cayetano hits NTC, Calida

Apparently stung by critics who have accused him of sitting on the ABS-CBN franchise, Cayetano used his sponsorship speech to lash out at broadcast regulators and Solicitor General Jose Calida.

Cayetano pointed out that the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) had promised to let ABS-CBN operate beyond the expiry of its franchise on May 4, only to turn around and shut it down the following day upon pressure from Calida.

The speaker accused Calida, who threatened regulators with graft cases, of hiding his position on the franchise and waiting for the eve of the reopening of Congress to make public his intervention with the NTC.

Cayetano hit media groups that condemned the ABS-CBN shutdown and said the House could not grant the franchise without hearings. Moreover, lawmakers needed to prioritize other important bills amid the pandemic, he claimed.

Bills renewing the ABS-CBN franchise had waited for committee hearings since August 2019, months before the Covid-19 outbreak.

Cayetano also claimed ABS-CBN’s closure was not a press freedom issue. “Wala tayong binubusalan dito. We are simply following the law that every 25 years you have to present before Congress of why we should give you another 25 years.

Cayetano addressed critics who had pointed to his statement on Feb. 24 that he himself would switch on ABS-CBN’s transmitter if the network was shut down. He retorted that ABS-CBN shut down on its own.

ABS-CBN had complied with an NTC cease-and-desist order that had immediate effect when it was served on the network on May 5.

“Sa araw na ito, we will begin the process of turning on your transmitter by giving you a franchise until October 31, 2020, and we will have the hearing. Tatapusin namin ‘to at tao ang magju-judge kung dapat kayo bigyan o hindi ng prangkisa,” Cayetano said.

‘Short leash’

Asked to explain why the franchise would only be for a five-month period, another bill sponsor, Camarines Sur Rep. LRay Villafuerte, said the bill would allow ABS-CBN to operate while Congress conducted hearings on a fresh 25-year franchise.

“It will enable them to air, it will enable the 11,000 employees to function and work,” he said.

On Twitter, UP journalism professor Danilo Arao said a five-month franchise for ABS-CBN would further reinforce the “chilling effect” of government efforts to suppress the media.

“A five-month provisional franchise seeks to put ABS-CBN on a short and tight leash. This further weaponizes the law to repress the media. The chilling effect is clear. The demand for 25-year franchise renewal remains,” he said.

Opposition senator Francis Pangilinan described the rushed House bill as a “band-aid solution.”

“Pero parang asong nakagapos sa leeg ang kumpanya. Hihilahin lang nang mahigpit at hindi na maaaring tumahol at sa halip ay hihiyaw sa hapdi,” he said in a statement.

“Bakit 5 buwan lang at hindi 25 years tulad ng lahat ng iba pang nabigyan ng mga prangkisa ng Kongreso? Hangga’t hindi naaprubahan ang franchise, maituturing pa rin na pag-atake sa media at press freedom at paghamak sa ating demokrasya ang nasabing usapin.” (